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Name: Bonnie H.
Status: educator
Age: 30s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2001

What kind of microscope is used to view atoms? How much detail is actually seen? Also, could you please explain the indirect methods of viewing atoms (I am a high school biology teacher, kids are always asking how scientists see atoms, if at all).

The scanning tunneling microscope has a small probe which actually more like "feels" the size of the atoms and reads this out on a computer screen. The probe can pick up individual atoms. IBM used a STM years ago to spell I B M with uranium atoms and took a picture of it. But one does not actually directly "see" the atoms.

Peter Faletra Ph.D.
Assistant Director
Science Education
Office of Science
Department of Energy

Scanning-tunneling microscopes and atomic-force microscopes can see individual atoms. You can look at some images from these and other microscopes at

You don't see much detail, and what you're actually seeing is the electron cloud. The nucleus is much much smaller.

One indirect method of viewing atoms is protein crystallography, in which the electron distribution of a complex molecule is inferred from diffraction patterns of x-rays scattered from a very large number of identical, aligned molecules in a crystal.

Tim Mooney

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